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In America: Sweatshop Beneficiaries

New York Times |  By Bob Herbert | July, 24 1995 |  Share  | Source Article

The hundreds of thousands of young (and mostly female) factory workers in Central America who earn next to nothing and often live in squalor have been an absolute boon to American clothing company executives like Donald G. Fisher, the chief executive of the Gap and Banana Republic empire, who lives in splendor and paid himself more than $2 million last year.

Judith Viera is an 18-year-old who worked at a maquiladora plant in El Salvador that made clothing for the Gap and other companies. She was paid a pathetic 56 cents an hour. If she wanted to use the bathroom, she had to go through the humiliation of asking a supervisor for a ticket. Anyone who stayed in the bathroom too long was punished by being sent outside to sweep the grounds in the hot sun.

Donald Fisher should meet Judith Viera, spend some time with her, listen to her as she describes in a still-childish voice her most modest of dreams. She would like to earn enough money to buy a little more food for her mother and two sisters. She would like to go to high school.

But Donald Fisher is a busy man. It takes a great deal of time to oversee an empire balanced on the backs of youngsters like Ms. Viera (and her counterparts in Asia). After all, the Gap had sales of $3.6 billion last year. And Forbes magazine reported that Mr. Fisher himself is worth $1.5 billion.

No, Donald Fisher wouldn't have time for the likes of Judith Viera. Besides, if they had an honest conversation, Mr. Fisher might come to the conclusion that the maquiladora workers were being exploited. That is a conclusion to be shunned with the same intensity that tobacco executives muster for their denials that cigarettes cause cancer.

The free-trade zones in which the sweatshops flourish in Central America and the Caribbean were promoted by the U.S. Government and largely financed by U.S. taxpayers. They are a scandal. In August 1990, the ludicrously named Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (Fusades), a group almost entirely financed by the United States Agency for International Development, placed an ad in Bobbin, a major trade magazine for the apparel industry in the U.S.

The glossy full-color ad showed a young woman seated at a sewing machine in a shirt factory. The text spoke directly to executives in the United States. It said: "Rosa Martinez produces apparel for U.S. markets on her sewing machine in El Salvador. You can hire her for 57 cents an hour."

The ad went out of its way to explain that "Rosa is more than just colorful." It assured the executives who would be shelling out the two quarters and seven pennies an hour that "she and her co-workers are known for their industriousness, reliability and quick learning."

In March 1991, the same ad ran in the same magazine, except for one minor change. "You can hire her for 57 cents an hour" was changed to "You can hire her for 33 cents an hour."

At some point between August and March it was decided that at 57 cents an hour the industrious, reliable and quick-learning Rosa Martinez was overpaid!

Warren Hashagen, a senior vice president at Gap Inc., said on Friday that he did not believe the maquiladora system was "inherently" exploitative. "We believe that it is important to pay at a minimum the legal minimum wage, or the prevailing wage for the industry, whichever is higher," he said. Whether that is a sufficient income for the wage earners, he said, is not his call.

"I'm not an economist," said Mr. Hashagen, "and I'm not an expert on Central America to know whether it's an appropriate wage for the cost of living there and for whatever is provided by the factory otherwise."

In fact, while companies like the Gap, J.C. Penney, Levi Strauss and many others reap the benefits, the maquiladora workers are suffering. In El Salvador, for example, they earn less than one-fifth of the amount needed to meet the minimum cost-of-living requirements. In the luxurious suites of the big U.S. apparel companies, the attitude is: that's their problem.